Courage Makes You Safer

Everybody gets scared.  What are you most scared of?

I’m not just talking about the standard answers like snakes and heights and public speaking.  You may be terrified of those things, but even if you are, they’re mostly pretty easy to avoid.

No, I’m talking about things that are harder to avoid, like intimacy and failure and change, being seen and losing control and getting in trouble.

Some scary things are just a part of everyday life. You can’t avoid them, so instead you have to figure out how to respond to the things that scare you. Courage is not most people’s default response to fear, but, paradoxically, it turns out to be the response that makes you the safest.

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This video is part 1 in an ongoing series on Overcoming Fear

View Video Transcript
Courage Makes You Safer
Steve Bearman
October 5, 2011

Everybody gets scared. Different people are scared of different things and naturally when we are scared we want to do things to make ourselves feel safer. Unfortunately some of our fear-based behaviors designed to create safety, actually put us in greater danger. I am out here in the Sierra Nevada mountains where I spend a lot of time, and I love adventuring here with people who have never been here before, and the places we go are off trail, out across the landscapes in the wilderness. So I want to show you a couple of examples of ways that people behave out here when they get scared, to try to make themselves safer, that actually put them in greater danger, and then talk about how that might relate to your life. So here I’m on a mountain slope and the slope is covered with scree which is small rocks and gravel, usually in sand which makes it all slide around a lot. Someone who has never walked on this before will naturally be scared because it moves around a lot, and so what they may do in order to try to be safer is to try to maintain control and place each foot carefully so that they don't slip, and they’d walk something like this. Obviously, not safe. So let’s try that again. Instead of trying to maintain control in order to be safe I assume that I can’t keep control. There’s no way, I am going to slide no matter what I do, and I can just incorporate this slide into my walk and use momentum to just get myself across like this. Another mountain landscape that people get scared by when they first experience it, are these steep granite slabs, they think, “This is too steep, there is no way I can walk up.” But actually it’s quite easy to walk up as long as you keep your body vertical relative to the surface of the earth, so that my weight is channeled straight down and it sticks me to the rock if I walk like this. But what people do to try to make themselves safer is lean into the rock, then they can get closer to the rock, they can maybe catch themselves if they fall and that causes their weight to be channeled down the slope of the rock and they have experiences like this, which is obviously not safe. In both those examples people are trying to keep from sliding and slipping. But yet the things that they do to try to make themselves safer actually make them slide and slip. They are self-fulfilling processes. And so what's the solution? Do I tell people “just don't feel scared?” No, that’s not really only an option, people feel the way they feel. When you are scared of something, you can’t help but feel scared. Instead what you have to do is you have to act courageously. What it means to be courageous is that you feel scared but you do the thing anyway, something that you want to do, something that you desire to do but that you are scared about. So if you act courageous then you’ll just walk confidently across the scree and you won’t have time to slip because you are using momentum and you’ll walk straight upright up the slab, because that’s actually what’s going to make you safe. Now, does this mean that you should act courageously in the face of every fear and just do the thing that seems like it is scary? No, if you are afraid of sharks, I’m not telling you you should swim directly into the mouths of sharks, and that’ll make you safer. But consider some of the things that people tend to be scared of on a more day-to-day basis, not in the mountains. So for instance, a lot of us are afraid of rejection. And if you are afraid of rejection, what you might tend to do is not show yourself. You are afraid that if people see who you really are, that they won’t want you, they won’t want to be around you and they will reject you. So instead you act the ways that you think that they want you to act, and that makes you much less interesting. It makes you less yourself and so people are much less interested in you, because they’ve never got the chance to actually experience you. So they are more likely to reject you and you are doubly screwed, because if they do accept you, they are not accepting you anyway, they are accepting some made-up version of you, and so they’ve rejected you because they had no choice to, you gave them no choice. If you act courageously then you just show yourself, you be real, you give people the opportunity to accept you for who you really are, and they might not, you might actually get rejected. The goal is, be courageous and get good at getting rejected. If you are afraid of failure, you might act in ways that are so tense that it causes you to perform less well, and you are more apt to fail. What people do even more often than that is they don’t even do the thing that they are afraid that they’ll fail out, they can tell they are not really good at it and they don’t want to go through the process of having to fail a bunch to get good at, and so they don’t do the thing, and in not doing it they ensure that they failed because they’ve never given themselves the chance to succeed. Instead, if you act courageously then you move forward as if you can succeed and maybe you fail, and you get good at failing and you get help with the fear, but you act courageously and the courage actually makes you safer. It makes it more likely that you’ll get the results you want and less likely that a self-fulfilling prophecy will bring your fears to life. Courage and boldness are actually your friends, and so be courageous and above all be bold.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.